My 12 in 12 Challenge – October – History – Book 9

John MacLeod’s book None Dare Oppose about the nineteenth century on the island of Lewis in the Hebrides tells the most amazing tale. The island was owned by Sir James Matheson who was retired from a career in the East and regarded the island and its inhabitants as a hobby. He mostly left the management of the estate and its tenants to Donald Munro, a man who quickly became known as the Beast and who ruled in the area for over thirty years in tyranny and oppression. This book outlines the period and its effects on the tenants in detail often relying on past histories and on court documents.

Munro was the local solicitor and together with his partner he was for a long period the only solicitor on the island. He was also the factor for Sir James, the local magistrate, the island prosecutor and held at least 30 other local offices – what he did not hold were held by his partner and his nephew. Together they were the law and there were none to oppose them except the local sheriff who proved not strong enough. The location of Lewis compared with all other authorities meant that what happened locally stayed local and that no one from outside found that what had happened was worth the long and arduous journey across Scotland to rectify.

This was the time of the Highland clearances but Sir James didn’t clear much land for sheep farming. He did, however, order crofters moved from good land to poorer for the development of shooting land and also where their activity caused him and his family inconvenience. Munro himself appeared to enjoy power for its own sake and removed people from their land when they fell behind with the rent, went to the law with everything he could and thus piled additional costs on already poor people, fined people he didn’t like with impunity and sought to ensure that no local crofter could better themselves. Without legal representation available, no support from the landowner and with limited resources the people were completely at the mercy of Munro – there was no mercy.

Munro himself appeared to operate for the pleasure of spite. He may have accumulated some ill-gotten gains but his motive was not money but the exercise of power. He surrounded himself with others who obviously had similar inclinations and were happy to oppress the local people. Munro himself was a highlander who spoke Gaelic which was the language of the island and its inhabitants. In the end the people had enough of the oppression and a local uprising/riot/demonstration caused an end to the tyranny.

The story is interesting but the author has a heavy style which did cause me to find some of the middle of the book heavy going. There was perhaps a bit much detail about all the court cases. I was amused, however, by the author’s obvious partisanship – he makes no secret of his opinion of the people involved especially as his family members lived on Lewis at the time.

It is definitely worth wading through this book. It tells of a different time and place and the injustices meted out to people by those in power together with the indifference of anyone who might have made a difference. It is an object lesson in the importance of proper balances in our public processes and the rule of law.